Charles Sheffield,
(Baen, 1998-99)

The two volumes in Charles Sheffield's Transvergence tell of events that occur over a period of about one year. Overall, however, the time perspective is much longer, tens of millions of years in fact. It is 4,000 years in the future and humans have spread out from Earth into the galaxy, progressing first at sub-light speed and then more quickly with the benefit of faster-than-light technology. They encounter aliens and alien empires, splitting into factions based on the wealth and suitability for human colonisation of various star systems.

At the heart of such expansion, and of the story itself, lies a mystery that all intelligent species in the galaxy strive to solve. The distinguished young academic Darya Lang has devoted her life to its study and now believes she has divined an insight that might bring to an end humanity's 3,000-year puzzlement. In order to confirm her theory, she must leave the quiet of her garden planet and travel to an unstable and dangerous planetary system. There she meets the others who together will form the disparate group (both human and alien), whose adventures are related sequentially in in the four-book Convergent series (published two to a volume).

Forming the main part of Book I (Summertide) is a wonderfully sustained description of the destruction of a planet by the gravitational force of its sun, and of the efforts of our protagonists to survive the process while on the surface. In Book II (Divergence) we meet malevolent aliens that could have been inspired by the garish cover of an old pulp magazine -- huge, many-tentacled and driven by a need to conquer all. Later there is the discovery of a Lost World, and conversations with alien machines so many millions of years old that they must struggle to remember speech and may well be insane.

Darya Lang, despite her sheltered background, is never far from the action, her survival due for the most part to the often brave efforts of Hans Rebka, a tough survivor from one the less salubrious planets colonized by humans. Of course, a sexual chemistry develops between these two opposites. Also among the group is a gangster (with a bio-augmentation of alien origin) and his (very) alien partner, both of whom are in possession of an intelligent slave, each from a different species.

The foreground of these novels is pure fast-paced adventure, action and wonder, with the frequent dramatic episodes tempered by flashes of real humour. In the background however are two themes, one almost universal, the other an often-explored one in SF.

The first is evidenced at the beginning when Darya Lang, overcoming her timidity and life experience, journeys into danger on the basis of her conviction that an ancient civilization, absent from the galaxy for millennia, is about to return in glory. The hard evidence for this belief is slight. True, she has substantial evidence that "something" is happening across the galaxy that has never occurred before but the leap from objective fact to the near certainty of "the return" is a leap of faith. Humans seem inherently to long for such a "messianic time," not just in religion but also in secular thought (for example the attraction for many of the ultimate triumph predicted in the works of Karl Marx). Perhaps it is this inherent longing that explains why Lang's belief in a "second coming" does not seem remarkable to either the other members of the group or to the reader.

In Convergence, the writer entertainingly blends this first theme with a second, that of the control of history over long stretches of time by means of covert social manipulation. The archetypal example of this theme in SF is of course Asimov's original Foundation trilogy. In Transvergence, both themes are simultaneously exploited to bring about a dramatic and satisfactory resolution to the long journeys of Lang and Rebka. The first of these two journeys is an expansive one across and indeed beyond the galaxy, the second is an inward one familiar to all those who live and love. The milestones passed on the galactic journey are as strange and exotic as any to be found in the SF genre, while those passed on the second are no less interesting for being familiar, passed as they are by these future travellers on so strange a road.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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